Donald Trump raised eyebrows Wednesday night by repeating his claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a better leader than U.S. President Barack Obama.
“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump told moderator Matt Lauer of Putin during an NBC News “Commander-in-Chief Forum.”
“I’ve already said he is really very much a leader. I mean, you can say, ‘Oh, isn’t that a terrible thing?’ The man has very strong control over a country,” the GOP nominee said. “But certainly in that system he’s been a leader far more than our president has been a leader. We have a divided country,” Trump continued.
Relations between the U.S. and Russia have cooled in recent years, during which the Kremlin has annexed part of Ukraine and generally worked to thwart U.S. interests around the world.
Experts also widely believe that Russian hackers were behind the July leak of Democratic National Committee emails. But Trump had nothing but kind words for Trump during the NBC forum.
At one point, Trump approvingly noted Putin’s high approval rating within Russia.
“He does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here,” Trump told Lauer.
Lauer countered that Putin is “also a guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world and, according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers.”
Trump declined to accept the suggestion that Russia was behind the DNC leak, which contained politically embarrassing emails that led to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation as DNC chair.
“Nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to name some of the things President Obama does at the same time?” Trump asked Lauer.
Stuart Stevens, a top strategist on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, said Republicans would have been enraged if Obama had made similar comments about George W. Bush during the 2008 race:
If in ‘08, Senator Barack Obama had praised Putin as a better President than the American, Republicans would have demanded he quit race.
— stuart stevens (@stuartpstevens) September 8, 2016
Trump and Putin have praised one another, and the GOP nominee has gone out of his away to avoid criticizing the Russian leader. Last December, “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough similarly told Trump that Putin is “a person who kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries. Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?”
“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader,” Trump replied then. “Unlike what we have in this country.”
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) September 8, 2016